Nicola Sturgeon's 'tank' may be closer to empty than she thinks – John McLellan

One word dominated last week’s news; Ukraine wants more, the Germans don’t want to hand theirs over, Jacinda Ardern’s is empty, but Nicola Sturgeon says there is plenty left in hers. Tanks.

The UK Government might have parked its metaphorical Challenger on the First Minister’s lawn by blocking the Gender Recognition Reform Bill, and despite her steely determination to take her fight all the way to the Supreme Court, it already looks like another lost cause to follow the failed attempt to legislate for an independence referendum this year.

With two former Supreme Court judges already dismissing her chances of a successful challenge to protect her GRR bill, if this, as one of them, Lord Jonathan Sumption, claimed in the Sunday Times, is just another opportunity to “throw grit into the working of the Union” then this could be the moment when the fuel warning light begins to flash on Ms Sturgeon’s dashboard.

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There has been plenty wishful thinking from unionists in the past, but each time the First Minster has appeared under threat, tired or tetchy, she has stiffened her resolve and remained relatively unscathed. Whether that’s because of the Get Out of Jail cards Boris Johnson and Liz Truss provided makes no difference, and despite a track record of broken promises and failing services, election after election and poll after poll suggests she can keep the keys to Bute House as long as she wants.

Nicola Sturgeon's political energy may be further depleted if she has to backtrack on her plan to have a 'de facto referendum' on independence (Picture: Andy Buchanan/PA)

Right now, it’s hard to tell how the GRR controversy will play out longer term in the court of public opinion on her popularity or the wider independence movement, so the next polls will be pored over more than most. A Survation poll last week put No ahead on 54 per cent, but within hours a Find Out Now poll for The National newspaper, with some sampling after Scotland Secretary Alister Jack’s GRR intervention, gave the same lead to Yes.

Who knows, but there has never been any legislation with which Ms Sturgeon has been personally associated which is so out of synch with the public view – 66 per cent of people oppose lowering the age limit at which someone can self-identify their gender to 16, and 60 per cent oppose scrapping the need for a gender dysphoria diagnosis, according to the last survey ─ and recent events will have done nothing to keep the popular mood swinging her way.

When SNP MPs Alison Thewliss, Stewart McDonald and Kirsten Oswald, and SNP MSP Kaukab Stewart, were pictured in front of placards saying “Decapitate Terfs” (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) with a picture of a guillotine and “I eat Terfs and Tories”, then it’s a fair bet a significant number of people will be repelled by the language and bemused by their lack of judgment. The fact apologies were hastily issued once the pictures began to appear will make little difference, and whatever the rights and wrongs of either the legislation or the UK Government block, the link between the bill’s supporters and threats of violence against women is there for all to see.

If this is part of a strategy to, as Lord Sumption put it, “nibble away at the matters reserved to Westminster in order to provoke constitutional rows, which they hope will boost support for independence”, it may yet prove forlorn.

The imagery aside, the issue is tying the First Minster in knots and she too had to issue a clarification on Sunday after an uncharacteristic blunder in response to the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg when asked why it was ok for 16-year-olds to be able to change gender but not buy a pint in the pub. “I think over time, I think it is right to look at why can’t a 16-year-old drink alcohol in a pub,” she said, and then tweeted it was “bad phrasing” and “not what I meant” when the BBC knew it had a decent story and punted it on social media.

The fact her government is in the middle of a controversial consultation over legislation which threatens to smash the Scotch whisky industry, largely to stop young people drinking, indicated that defending the GRR bill is skewing her normally robust reaction to journalists’ questions. But the retraction then begs the question why 16-year-olds can’t buy a pint in case it damages their future health, but younger children can be prescribed puberty blockers with irreversible consequences. “I meant that there are reasons why you can do some things at 16 and not others” cuts both ways, and the public knows it.

Public opinion on independence has been on a knife-edge for years now, so the Supreme Court’s confirmation that the Scottish Government had no power to call a referendum unilaterally and the attendant claim that it was an affront to democracy always had a high chance of nudging up support, but on GRR it’s hard to imagine a significant number of waverers will be prepared to separate the issue from the politics and be persuaded to stick with independence because of all the usual hyperbole about “full-frontal assaults” on the Scottish Parliament.

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Again, the First Minster’s motivation doesn’t matter, and such a smart political operator would surely never have chosen such a divisive issue just as a tactic in a wider strategy, but being on the same side of an argument as people advocating capital punishment for differences of opinion isn’t where most politicians, except Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un or Iran’s Ebrahim Raisi, would like to be.

Being on the same page as New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern is where Ms Sturgeon is happiest, as evidenced by their enthusiasm for Covid lockdowns, and as the electorate isn’t making different plans why shouldn’t she insist she is “nowhere near” running on empty? The next call on her fuel supply will be backtracking on her “de facto referendum” plan at the special SNP meeting in March, but she’s made a career from running on fumes.

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